Carbon Monoxide: The Who, What, Where, Why, and How

Baker City Fire Department has run several recent calls involving potential carbon monoxide (CO) emergencies. Those calls varied from a simple dying battery alarm to a very serious CO exposure of an entire family. We are not alone; in the US there are more than 10,000 injuries annually from CO. According to the Journal of American Medical Association, approximately 2,100 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning every year in the US. So, questions come to mind like: What is carbon monoxide? Where does carbon monoxide come from? Why is carbon monoxide harmful? What do I need to do to protect myself and my family?

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is an invisible, odorless gas created when fuels, such as wood, coal, gasoline, charcoal, natural gas, propane, oil, methane, and kerosene burn incompletely. CO is produced from furnaces, heaters, and appliances using the above fuels. Those sources that produce CO may leak CO into homes due to improper ventilation, improper maintenance, or improper use in a confined space.

Carbon monoxide is harmful in the fact that it displaces oxygen in the blood and deprives the heart, brain and other vital organs of oxygen. The carbon monoxide molecule has 250 times more affinity to the red blood cell than that of the oxygen molecule. Those at higher risk of CO poisoning are unborn babies, infants, older adults, people who smoke, and people with chronic heart disease, respiratory illness, and anemia. Symptoms of CO poisoning initially are similar to the flu, but without a fever.

Symptoms include:

  • Bright red skin
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Mental confusion
  • Loss of muscular coordination
  • Loss of consciousness

Now that you understand what CO is, where it comes from, who is affected, and why it is so harmful; how are you going to protect yourself?

First step is to install a carbon monoxide alarm. The alarm's purpose is to detect CO and produce a distinctive audible alert. CO alarms should be installed on each level of your home with sleeping areas, in each bedroom or within 15 ft outside each sleeping area. CO alarms should be installed according to manufactures instructions. Once CO alarms are installed get into the practice of testing them monthly, removing dust and cobwebs, and replacing batteries at least once per year. Most manufactures recommend replacing alarms five years from the date of production.

There are several types of carbon monoxide alarms on the market. They range form CO only to combination smoke/CO alarms. Choose the one that best fits your situation.

Schedule preventive maintenance on fuel burning heating equipment and have chimneys inspected by a professional every year before cold weather sets in. Also have equipment fueled by natural gas, propane, oil, wood, coal, or methane inspected regularly by a qualified technician.

When the carbon monoxide alarm sounds take it seriously, DON'T IGNORE IT. Locate the alarm and silence it. Move everyone in the household outside to fresh air, then call 9-1-1. Notify 9-1-1 dispatch if anyone is experiencing symptoms of CO poisoning.

More information about carbon monoxide and carbon monoxide law and statutes are available by contacting the Office of State Fire Marshal

Sara Blair, FF/EMT-P, Prevention Coordinator
Baker City Fire Department
1616 2nd Street